When you think of Shakespeare’s plays your mind will most likely conjure up images of star crossed lovers, mad princes talking to the ghosts, tempests, witches, and, of course, cross-dressing siblings. If you continue on that line of thought you might add, perhaps rather dismissively, “oh and the kings”. In the three categories of the bard’s plays, comedy, tragedy and history, the latter is often neglected in current popular culture. However, Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Max Webber, feels incredibly pertinent, especially given current events.
To put it simply Henry V is about war, the fallible leaders that decide to instigate said wars and the innocent civilians that suffer because of those leaders’ decisions. The plot focuses on the newly crowned titular king, who declares war on France, and the events surrounding the Battle of Agincourt. While the themes and histories explored are, for the most part incredibly dark, there are a number of minor comic characters which add some much-needed lightness to a heavy plot.
The diverse and immensely talented cast breathed life into the performance and a special mention must be made of the musical talent, whose haunting voices added more emotional depth to an already richly passionate production. Kit Harington as Henry cuts both a heroic and hateful character, perfectly encapsulating Shakespeare’s complex depiction of the king and his war.
Harington portrays a charismatic leader in battle, particularly during the famous speech “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Nevertheless, this power is often soured by Henry’s uneasy treatment of friends, soldiers, and his French queen to be, Kathrine. While Harrington is compelling it is Millicent Wong as Chorus/Boy who steals the audience’s hearts. She is puckish but ultimately unforgiving of powerful men’s follies, and as such her performance is perhaps the most significant.
In keeping with tradition, the set is minimalist but effective, the use of projection, lighting and sound creates a realistically brutal and violent depiction of war. The projection of rain on the stage was particularly atmospheric, as was the use of strobe lights to depict shelling. In addition, the use of modern electronic music to illustrate celebration and rowdiness was cleverly jarring as was the amusing use of the ‘PowerPoint’ slideshow explaining the ancestry of English kings. As a large chunk of the play is in French the use of subtitles is necessary, however occasionally they were hidden by bits of the set which does tend to take the viewer out of the moment, but all in all, worked well.
Henry V is a cleverly imaginative production, which despite its length, remains engaging and thought provoking-throughout. It is very violent, dealing with a lot of traumatic themes, and a more detailed list of trigger warnings on the Donmar Warehouse website would be nice. However, this is an amazing play with a brilliant cast and everyone should see it.
Henry V is at The Donmar Warehouse until 9 April.